History and theater successfully wed in The Tarnation of Russell Colvin

History and theater successfully wed in The Tarnation of Russell Colvin

In 1812, Russell Colvin, a farm worker, disappeared in East Manchester, Vermont. Seven years later, two of his brothers-in-law were accused of and tried for his murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. At the very last minute, a man was found and brought to town who said he was Colvin; everyone agreed that was, indeed, true, and the men were freed, since obviously, no murder could have occurred.

Sounds like something from a Lifetime movie, right? Thing is, it really happened, only about an hour and a half away from here, and to me, that’s utterly fascinating. Even more fascinating – I’d never heard of it until I watched Oliver Wadsworth’s one-man show about the event currently in production at Hubbard Hall.

Wadsworth, in a tight 70 minutes, takes us through the story, playing a number of characters – Colvin’s uncle-in-law, the accused murderers, Colvin’s favorite son, Colvin’s wife, just to name a few – who weigh in on what happened and sometimes tell the story from their point of view, just when you think you’ve got a handle on the truth. With only a steamer trunk full of props and costume pieces and a beautiful vintage painted backdrop on Hubbard Hall’s historic stage, Wadsworth carefully brings these characters to life, drawing a picture of life in the early 1800s. What could be caricature never goes down that path; his work with dialect and body language is deft and skilled.

Wadsworth, who also wrote the piece (directed by Kirk Jackson) is a fine actor; it wasn’t until I read his bio that I realized he was in Take Me Out at Capital Repertory Theatre in 2007 and I loved his performance there, as well. He has energy to spare, but it’s never wasted or frantic; it’s contained and he uses it to his advantage. Each character he plays here is crisp and delineated; even when two or three characters are speaking to one another, you know immediately who’s who in the conversation.

We are left, at the end, not quite knowing what happened, and realizing, of course, we never will. Did the brothers murder Colvin? Was the man that returned in the nick of time actually Colvin, or an imposter? Maybe the best mysteries never have an answer, and allow us, like this play, to turn them over in our heads long after the spotlight goes out and we’ve gone on our way.

A one-man show is a difficult task, and this is a one-man show at its finest. The program notes that Wadsworth and Jackson continue to hone the piece as the tour progresses – that kind of attention to detail pervades the show and will never allow it to become stale. This is strong work by everyone involved, and not your run-of-the-mill production; history and theater being celebrated together makes for a fine marriage indeed.

“The Tarnation of Russell Colvin”, Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street, Cambridge, January 19 – 28, $30-$15, Run time: 70 minutes, (518) 677-2495,

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